(Beirut) – The Egyptian military’s mass home demolitions and forced eviction of about 3,200 families in the Sinai Peninsula over the past two years violated international law, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 84-page report, “Look for Another Homeland,” documents the government’s failure to provide adequately for residents during and after the evictions in North Sinai. Since July 2013, ostensibly to eliminate the threat of smuggling tunnels, the military has arbitrarily razed thousands of homes in a once-populated buffer zone on the border with the Gaza Strip, destroying entire neighborhoods and hundreds of hectares of farmland.
“Destroying homes, neighborhoods, and livelihoods is a textbook example of how to lose a counterinsurgency campaign,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Egypt needs to explain why it didn’t use available technology to detect and destroy the tunnels and instead wiped entire neighborhoods off the map.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed members of 11 families who were evicted from the buffer zone, as well as journalists and activists who have worked in the Sinai, and analyzed dozens of videos of the evictions and more than 50 commercial satellite images recorded over the buffer zone between March 2013 and August 2015.
The Egyptian authorities provided residents with little or no warning of the evictions, no temporary housing, mostly inadequate compensation for their destroyed homes – none at all for their farmland – and no effective way to challenge their eviction, home demolition, or compensation. These actions violated protections for forcibly evicted residents that are laid out in United Nations and African conventions to which Egypt is a party, and may also have violated the laws of war, Human Rights Watch found.
“My heart breaks at every detail in the house. Every picture frame, every stone, every piece has a history and stories,” Hajja Zaynab, a woman in her 60s, told Human Rights Watch. “How we lived sweetly and how we struggled and built our life from nothing without even a pound from those who are coming to destroy our life.”
Egypt’s official plan for the buffer zone calls for clearing about 79 square kilometers on the Gaza border, including all of Rafah, a town of about 78,000 people. The government has claimed that this buffer zone will eliminate smuggling tunnels that it alleges are used by insurgents affiliated with the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, to receive weapons, fighters, and logistical support from Gaza.
Human Rights Watch found that the Egyptian authorities have offered little or no evidence to support this justification, failed to observe international law protections for residents facing forced eviction, and may have violated the laws of war by disproportionately destroying thousands of homes in their effort to close smuggling tunnels.
The army has destroyed nearly all buildings and farmland within about a kilometer of the border using uncontrolled explosives and earth-moving equipment. In at least one case that was filmed and provided to Human Rights Watch, an American-made Egyptian army M60 tank shelled a building to demolish it. The army has also destroyed dozens of buildings more than a kilometer from the border and has announced plans to continue the demolitions.
The Egyptian government has failed to explain why its troops have not used sophisticated tunnel-detecting technology, for which they were trained by the United States as early as 2008, to find and eliminate tunnels without destroying thousands of homes and buildings near the border.
The Egyptian government has also not provided proof that insurgents receive military support from Gaza. Human Rights Watch found many more indications – including statements by Egyptian and Israeli officials – that the insurgents have obtained heavy arms from Libya or captured them from Egyptian military supplies, and that these arms are smuggled into Gaza from Sinai, not the reverse.
Human Rights Watch sent inquiries regarding the buffer zone and steps Egypt was taking to protect the rights of evicted residents to several Egyptian government agencies in July 2015, including the presidency and Foreign Affairs Ministry. Egypt did not respond to any of these inquiries.
Since July 2013, when the military overthrew Mohamed Morsy, the country’s first freely elected president, the Egyptian authorities have treated North Sinai as a closed military zone, forbidding nearly any access for journalists or human rights observers. Based on the satellite imagery, the military began home demolitions at about this time, more than a year before the government issued a decree formally creating the buffer zone and announcing the evictions.
Since July 2013, the Sinai-based insurgents have increased the pace and deadliness of their attacks, and the government’s response has escalated. Egypt allows almost no public oversight of these counterinsurgency operations in the Sinai or elsewhere. The apparently mistaken killing of 12 people, including 8 Mexican tourists, by Egyptian armed forces in the Western Desert region on September 13, 2015, during what was likely an operation against the ISIS-affiliated insurgents, was the first time that foreigners have suffered from what Egyptian civilians and human rights organizations describe as an often-indiscriminate counterinsurgency campaign.
The government releases little information about such operations and threatens journalists who report about them. In August, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a law that provides for a fine of up to 500,000 Egyptian pounds (US$64,000) and a year-long work ban for anyone who reports information about terrorism that contradicts the government.
Since July 2013, more than 3,600 people, including civilians, insurgents, and security forces, have died as a result of the conflict in North Sinai, according to media reports and government statements. Though Human Rights Watch could not independently verify these figures, and Sinai residents have previously accused the Egyptian government of misrepresenting casualty counts, the conflict has become significantly more deadly.
While Egypt can certainly protect itself from the insurgency and take action against the insurgents’ supply lines, Human Rights Watch said, it should do so in a way that does not arbitrarily harm civilians and violate their right to housing and their protections during forced evictions.
Egypt should halt the demolitions and evictions, use less destructive ways of demolishing tunnels, and provide adequate compensation and urgent accommodation to displaced families in need, Human Rights Watch said. The US should ensure that it is given access to North Sinai to conduct full human rights vetting on US military equipment, not supply military aid that risks being used in serious human rights abuses, and urge the Egyptian government to halt the demolitions and allow journalists and independent observers into to North Sinai.
“The United States and other Western nations that arm al-Sisi’s government look the other way when his forces abuse citizens under the dubious logic that he is aiding the fight against the Islamic State,” Whitson said. “But al-Sisi’s reckless counterinsurgency strategy serves mostly to turn his own citizens against their government.”